The Copenhagen Accord: A first stab at deciphering the implications for the EU

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The results of the Copenhagen conference on climate change have produced mixed feelings among leaders and nations. Christian Egenhofer and Anton Georgiev, researchers at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), clarify in a December paper the implications of the accord for climate change, global governance and the EU’s world leadership role.

“It is still unclear whether the agreement is ‘a disaster’ (Swedish EU Presidency) or represents ‘an unprecedented breakthrough’ (US President Barack Obama). Even the EU seems to be divided. 

First, there has always been a high degree of optimism behind the assumption that heads of government could break the deadlock that has developed over the last two years. It has been the very same governments whose heads met in Copenhagen that have been instructing the negotiators to stick to their positions and made them dig themselves ever deeper into their trenches. 

Second, closely related to the first point, the negotiations have become too complex for the heads of government to conclude, as argued by Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff of the FT, who characterised them as ‘systems overload’. 

Third, for the EU Copenhagen was originally about the final sharing-out of the remaining carbon budget of cumulative GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions of around 1,550 billion tonnes of CO2 that are left until 2050. For many other, including industrialised, countries, COP 15 has been more about architecture than about cuts in carbon emissions as such. 

Judgeing from the high rhetoric heard before the Copenhagen meeting, the results must be seen as a failure. The Copenhagen Accord does not impose actual and verifiable obligations, or binding emissions targets in particular, or finance contributions. 

This fact, however, should not be allowed to belittle the significant progress has been made in at least three areas: financing, deforestation and adaptation. Developed countries for the first time commit to a goal of jointly mobilising $100 billion annually by 2020 from both public and private sources. There is an explicit acknowledgement to act on deforestation and forest degradation. Action and cooperation on adaptation, particularly in the least-developed countries, small island developing states and Africa have been given ‘urgent’ attention, with developed countries committing to provide financial resources. 

It gradually transpired that what has now become the Copenhagen Accord would not follow a ‘top-down’ Kyoto-style ‘targets and timetable’ approach, but rather would take the form of ‘unilateral pledges’ or what the Harvard Project calls the ‘portfolio approach’ with some – of a yet unknown nature – mixture of domestic and international compliance. By extension, this means that the original objective of ‘vacating and redistributing the remaining carbon space’ has been postponed and may never materialise. 

The Copenhagen Accord asks Parties to formalise their pledges by the end of January 2010. To date, the most ambitious upper limit of the pledges for 2020, combined with the implementation of the national plans in China and India, would bring the globe towards a 3.2°C increase by 2100 at best, according to estimates by the Climate Action Tracker. 

As the Washington Post notes, developing nations, though not always united, nonetheless exercise a commanding role in a large majority in United Nations gatherings such as the Copenhagen conference. At some point, these majorities prevail. Copenhagen therefore may have been a glimpse into a new world order in which international diplomacy will increasingly be shaped by cooperation between the United States and emerging powers, most notably China. The Washington Post further notes that: ‘The leaders of Europe, Japan and other countries at the summit were largely left to rubber-stamp the deal. This may have been why the Swedish Prime Minister’s office let it know that the result was ‘a disaster’.’ 

The EU now faces several options: 

  1. The EU could attempt to declare Copenhagen a success. However, this would throw away the opportunity for Europe to reflect on what ‘leadership’ or at least a considerable role would mean. 
  2. The Lisbon Treaty, as the EU’s new ‘constitution’, offers an opportunity for the EU to play a bigger role in the negotiations, if it so wishes. Now that Merkel, Sarkozy and Brown realise that international climate change negotiations do not automatically allow for a star role, they may find it preferable to allow the European Commission to do more work in the negotiation trenches. 
  3. The EU will have to answer the question of whether it wants to keep its close relationship with the US in the negotiations or whether it wants to develop its own distinct position. This would require the EU to continue to develop its own position, as well as to challenge the US, where required.
  4. The EU could exercise leadership in future climate talks by pursuing a global ‘level’ pricing of carbon. There are two ways of doing this. One route would be to pursue scaled-up post-2012 mechanisms that allow the establishment of a global carbon price, but this would require the cooperation of other countries, notably developing countries. Another route would be for the EU to impose an import tax on the content of CO2 of all goods imported into the EU from countries that do not have their own cap-and-trade system or equivalent measures. From a purely economic perspective, this would be a straightforward way to move towards a global ‘shadow’ carbon price even in the rest of the world. A key effect of such a tariff is that it would always lower global emissions. 

If the EU continues to believe that climate change policy is important, it may need to make radical choices. Otherwise the recent period of EU leadership in this critical domain risks becoming a mere footnote in history.”

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